A few years ago, I bought Guild Wars and mostly enjoyed it. It had a well crafted world and an interesting combat system, and should have been right up my alley. But every few minutes I would instinctively hit the space bar and deflate when my avatar failed to jump. Having come right off City of Heroes and a series of FPSs, the game’s rejection of my will instantly pulled me out of the experience. I know I’m not the only one, as most reviews of Guild Wars mentioned the inability to jump Guild Wars 2 previews inevitably emphasize the ability to leave the ground on command.
Research I’ve been exposed to recently has made it abundantly clear why this disturbed me so: Guild Wars was not meeting my need for Autonomy. Basically Autonomy or Volition (well named game company!) in this context refers to the need of players to feel like they can make real choices. Individual choice and open ended game design is associated with increased autonomy but is not required, because research (working to cite a source, this is based on my notes from a presentation) has shown that the important bit is that a player feel like they made a choice, and not that they actually did. It is incredibly vital to do as much as you can to align the game’s available choices and the player’s expectations. When they get out of sync, the long-term engagement of players with your game will plummet, which basically means no word of mouth or sustainability.
Despite being a supposedly open-ended game with lots of player choice, Grand Theft Auto 4 violated my Autonomy repeatedly. They introduced a compelling character interested in changing his life, and I bought into the premise. But then the game forced me to murder hundreds of people for threadbare reasons. Sure I could run around and shoot pigeons if I felt like it, but when it came to anything important I was strait jacketed into highly scripted and linear missions. This is a very real problem recently as this has popped up in other games (Uncharted 2 left me cold for the same reason) that are attempting to mix real character motivations with slaughterhouse gameplay contexts.
Games that focus on satisfying player Autonomy can create drastically variable responses in different players. Let’s take a game like Alpha Protocol, which by all accounts is quite bad at satisfying the Competence need (the action is pretty bad) but like every Obsidian game tries to really embrace player Autonomy. For a reviewer like Scott Sharkey of 1UP, the game obviously satisfied his Autonomy in compelling ways, while for a reviewer like Jim Sterling of Destructoid it completely missed the mark. Recent games like Deadly Premonition and Nier share identical review score profiles for arguable similar reasons. If you want a universally well reviewed game, you’re going to have to work overtime to craft the expectations of players (and reviewers) to match with the choices the game provides.
Back to Jumping, I think there’s one thing every game designer needs to learn about Autonomy: If some reasonably large percentage of your audience keeps trying to do something and is frustrated when they can’t, you either need to let them do it or change your presentation so they stop trying. For instance Gears of War does a great job of setting the expectations properly (the physicality of the characters and terrain flatness make it so you never want to jump), but if your game looks and controls like a PC MMO your audience is going to need to jump. Yes, this will mean a reduction in the autonomy of the designer, but hopefully we can learn to deal with that.